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15 Practical Bird Watching Tips for 2024

image of an eagle through binoculars

In years past, birdwatching was often thought of as a sort of “old-fashioned” pastime. You might picture the average birder as a friendly grandma hanging out on her favorite park bench. But times have changed. There have always been young birdwatchers, but ever since the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, birdwatching is trendier than ever.

So what’s all the fuss about? If you’re new to birding and looking to get started, I’ve put this guide together to help you start your journey. Let’s go over some helpful tips for your birding trip so that you can add some beauties to your life list (Don’t worry. I’ll explain some of the jargon along the way!)

Here are specific and actionable bird watching tips that help you to become a better birder, whether you’re a post-pandemic newbie or a pro who’s still looking to learn more. Either way, I’ve got what you need.

What is birdwatching?

Before we get into the birdwatching tips, let’s define what we’re actually talking about. You might think: “What is birdwatching? That’s a silly question! It’s right there in the name.” You’d be right, of course. Birdwatching is all about watching birds. But it can be a little bit more complex than that.

For some birdwatchers, birding just means enjoying nature, being conscious of what’s around you, and paying attention to the birds in your space. This laidback approach is very conducive to feeder watching and is generally a great relaxed way to get in touch with nature and learn about your local wildlife at your own pace.

Other birders take the hobby a bit more seriously. For some, keeping a life list, meaning a list of all the birds you’ve seen and identified in your life, is the name of the game. These are the types to take exotic birdwatching trips to try and nab a rare “life lister” to grow their list. This type of birdwatching can get pretty competitive and record-holding life lists can climb towards 10,000 unique bird species.

It doesn’t matter what kind of birder you want to be. The starting point is always the same. Begin by learning about your local birds. Look at some field guides and start to familiarize yourself with the different families of birds and the anatomy and markings you might use to distinguish them.

Visit some local parks or nature preserves. Consider putting out a few different kinds of feeders to see who visits your yard. Maybe invest in a nice beginner set of birdwatching binoculars. Pay attention to your surroundings and you’ll start to accrue an impressive list. Where you take it from there is all up to you!

Now, let’s get into our tips to up your birding game!

1. Get the sun at your back

If you’re a pretty laid-back birdwatcher, one of the simplest tricks in the book is to make sure the sun is behind you while you’re out looking for birds. The sunlight catches on their feathers and illuminates their colors, which often contrast with the background environment, allowing you to spot birds more easily. This won’t always work, but it’s definitely helpful.

birds in nature

On the other hand, if you’re looking at birds with the sun in front of you, sometimes all you’ll see are black silhouettes. While you can still identify birds this way, you won’t be able to fully appreciate their plumage and color. Since bird identification is mostly done on a visual basis, it’s definitely much more challenging in difficult lighting.

So if you’re looking for the best bird watching spot in your home, consider the position of the sun at the time you plan to find birds. If you’re going on a hike, walk in the direction away from the sun. This way, you can maximize the light for better chances of spotting birds.

2. Get the right pair of binoculars

Of all the birdwatching tools available on the market, the one every birder should invest in is a pair of birding binoculars. These allow you to find a bird and identify it from a distance. If cared for properly, a good pair can last for years. They’re often expensive, but budget-friendly binoculars do exist. And they can revolutionize the birding experience.

Beginners may want to start with 8x42s. The first number indicates magnification strength, while the second is the diameter of the objective lens.

man with binoculars

You may think that higher is better, but a higher magnification will mean it’s harder to hold steady and the field of view is usually much smaller. Larger objective lenses also become pretty heavy. Ideally, birding supplies should be easy to carry, as you may be walking around for hours, not to mention holding them up to your face for long stretches.

You will want a pair that has a wide field of view. This is how much space in feet you’ll be able to see if you are watching from 1000 yards away. The wider it is, the wider the view that you’ll be able to see. Just recognize that field of view and magnification strength are usually a tradeoff. Shoot for something in the middle for your first pair.

3. Set a target list for each birding trip

To prepare for each birding outing and build up excitement for your trip, write down a list of target species that you’re hoping to see while out and about.

Say you’re planning to go at daybreak to a famous birding spot by a lake. Beforehand, learn about birds in that area that live or feed on fish. From there, pick 3-4 species that catch your eye.

You might set out hoping to spot an American Coot, a Great Blue Heron, and a Marsh Wren. All three of these are fairly common North American wetlands birds that you could expect to see in a single day.

Read in-depth about their habits, their appearance, and their calls. Use these bird tips to customize your plans and route, increasing the likelihood of seeing them. This will help you focus on expanding your list, if that is your goal.

woman writing into a journal

You might even plan a trip to a place specifically to see a specific bird! In birding lingo, this dedicated pursuit to see a rare avian species is called “twitching.”

While sitting in one place or wandering around aimlessly will still allow you to see birds, there’s a different kind of joy when you find something you’re actively looking for.

There’s no guarantee you’ll ever see it, but when you do, the feeling of accomplishment is exhilarating. Just don’t get too bummed if you don’t spot everything on your list. Sometimes, the surprise sightings that you don’t anticipate at all are the most thrilling.

4. Practice “the freezing technique”

Birds are fast-moving and “flighty” creatures that can be fairly timid, so birders need to take great care not to spook them and lose their chance to observe or snap a photo. Movement, noise, and light can frighten them away, so birders must minimize these in order to get a good look at them.

The freezing technique is an effective way to do this. Practice freezing by stopping every few minutes to stay still and observe your surroundings. You can even sit on a log so you’re more comfortable.

two photographers

Take out a pen and notebook so you’re at the ready to take notes as you see birds. Note that turning the pages of a field guide can scare them away. I like to practice the movements that I know I need to take, like adjusting my binoculars, so that I get good at performing them quickly, quietly, and fluidly.

When you freeze, make sure to scan the environment from canopy to underbush. Allow yourself several minutes of standing still so you can take in your surroundings without frightening any birds.

Different birds have different sizes of comfort zones, but you may be surprised at how close some of them can get when they are used to your presence

5. Try pishing

Bird watching is one of the rare outdoor activities where you need to be quiet and move slowly. The idea is to put yourself in the best position to see the bird. But this is easier said than done.

You may be able to identify the best vantage point, but getting there before your target bird notices you and moves on can be tough. Twigs, dried grass, puddles of water–all these could get in between you and the perfect view.

bird in nature

If you’re having a hard time getting to the best position to see the bird, then get the bird to change position for you. One of the simplest tips of bird watchers involves “pishing”.

These are sounds you can make that have been found to intrigue birds. When they hear it, they turn towards the sound, or even move closer to it.

There are two ways to “pish”. One is by saying the word “pish” itself. This blows air through your clenched teeth. You can also kiss the back of your hand to make a small, squeaky noise.

Just be careful not to scare or upset birds. There is plenty of debate in the birdwatching community over the ethics of using sound to attract birds. It is generally recommended to do so only sparingly and use your best judgment. Using recorded birdsong to attract birds, for example, can bring in songbirds, but may cause them undue stress over the prospect of strange birds in their territory.

6. Start your bird life list

As we mentioned above, a bird life list is a checklist of all the species you have ever encountered. It can be in a journal form, a checklist form, or even saved on an online document or app.

This record is a great way to build your knowledge and remember your birding experiences. To start your life list, begin by learning about the birds in your area.

woman writing into a journal

Familiarize yourself with your most common avian neighbors. You may be surprised to find you recognize some faces, even if you didn’t know their official names until now.

Novice birdwatchers can start off in their own backyard. This helps you practice using field guides and explore online resources in the comfort of your own home.

Note the species, date, location, and any thoughts you may have. As your birders journal grows, you can look fondly back on what you’ve seen and share this with fellow bird enthusiasts. Adding a new entry is always an exciting event!

7. Get the timing right

There is no single best time for bird watching. The answer to the question “when are birds most active” depends on the kind of bird you’re looking for.

Songbirds like the robin, blackbird, and thrushes are most active at dawn because the calm and still morning air allows their calls to be heard by potential mates, particularly during the breeding season.

Foragers are also early risers because the warmth of the sun stirs sleeping insects out of the soil.

You might also find that some of these birds become active again at dusk. This is because some birds are “crepuscular” and become most active around both sunrise and sunset.

bird in nature

Vultures, eagles, and hawks are seen flying in the late morning and afternoon because they rely on sun-warmed air currents to soar through the air, rather than expending energy flapping their wings.

Going birding at night is more difficult, because of the obvious visibility challenges, but seeing owls, nightjars, night herons, whip-poor-wills, and other nocturnal birds makes it worthwhile.

This means you can go birding any time that is convenient for you and still see birds. You can also plan birding trips according to a species that you want to see.

And that’s not to mention seasonality! Some birds that don’t strictly “live” in your area may pass through it once or twice a year during annual migrations. Feeders might become more active in winter when food is scarce, but spring may allow you to catch a glimpse of recent fledglings. Birding is truly a hobby for all seasons!

8. Master the four-step bird identification process

Birding usually involves identifying birds. But how do you identify a bird? Even when you’ve got a bird looking you in the eye with perfect visibility and lighting, it’s not always easy to identify it.

After all, there are so many species present in a single region. And some may look head-scratchingly similar to one another. As you improve and become more familiar with birds, identification will get easier, but you’ll need to hone that intuition before it does.

The amount of information in bird resources can be overwhelming. To break it down to bite-sized pieces, just take note of the following: (1) habitat, (2) behavior, (3) size and shape, and (4) color and pattern.

bird in nature

Use habitat and behavior to help you in the initial stages. If you’re birdwatching in California and you see something blue, it probably isn’t a Blue Jay, which doesn’t live on the West Coast. Habitat can be really helpful in ruling out some options. PS: That California blue bird was probably a Steller’s Jay or a California Scrub Jay ;).

Narrow the down species in the area at that time of the year, then take note of their feeding and nesting behavior so you have an idea where you’ll most likely see them. Having an idea of what you might see on your birdwatching outing will make identification that much easier.

Finally, familiarize yourself with the size, shape, colors, and patterns so you can easily spot them. You can write bullet points or one-sentence descriptions for each of the steps.

Alternatively, you can use apps that allow you to attach reference bird pictures for easy visualization.

9. Follow the birding ethics guidelines

Wild birdwatching may seem unintrusive, but the mere presence of humans in the vicinity may cause changes in the birds’ behavior. This is particularly true for popular birding spots that receive many visitors throughout the day and night.

As such, all bird watching enthusiasts must strictly adhere to standard birding ethics. These are meant to minimize human impact on the birds and their natural environment.

bird photographer silouhette

Birders should endeavor to be as unobtrusive as possible to prevent causing stress, anxiety, and harm in birds. This includes being quiet and observing birds from a respectful distance.

No traces of human activity should be left behind, including food waste, plastics, or other garbage.

Activities that alter the natural avian behavior are also not allowed, including feeding and the use of strong lights at night. This is also a sign of respect for other birders who want to observe the birds in their natural state.

10. Learn to identify birds by ear

Humans are primarily visual creatures, but there are many times when we look at the birds up in the trees and only hear their calls. Some birds are very shy or hard to spot, so training your ears to listen for birds can open you up to a whole new world of birding possibilities.

While it may be a little more difficult to do, learning to distinguish different bird sounds gives you a deeper appreciation for these amazing animals. Thankfully, modern technology has made learning about bird calls much easier and more accessible.

bird in nature

Many bird enthusiast associations and research groups such as the National Audubon Society have online audio resources and apps that you can peruse.

You can also watch videos of particular birds singing so you can easily connect the sound to a visual.

Start by listening to bird sounds of avian species common in your area. You may hear this in your backyard, or even as you go jogging. This serves as great practice as you start learning to distinguish between bird calls.

As you build your repertoire, you get better and better at differentiating birds by ear. Once you’ve got some bird calls down, they’ll even help you with sightings. Follow the calls to find the bird you’re hearing and see it with your own eyes!

11. Wear the right clothes

There is a whole lot of bird watching stuff you can buy, but the first thing you should buy is appropriate birdwatching clothing.

While birds don’t experience the same range of colors that we do, they can easily spot contrast.

Brightly-colored clothes, including white ones, stand out from the environment and make your movements much more noticeable.

man in the nature

Instead, you should wear darker, earth-toned colors to blend in. Dull grey, green, and browns are good options. You should also consider the clothing material.

Don’t use fabrics that rustle or easily snag on branches. Avoid wearing accessories that could clink as you move. Outdoor clothes and footwear made for nature watching and trekking should be fine.

Don’t forget to check the weather report for your trip. You may need to bring a raincoat, warm clothes, or rubber boots for rainy and snowy weather. Bringing along a strong flashlight comes in handy in case you’re out until dark. Just don’t flash lights at the birds.

12. Pack a birding bag

To make your trip pleasant and safe, make sure you prepare your birding bag ahead of time. Ideally, use a compact and light backpack with pockets to keep your stuff safe while giving you mobility.

Your basic birding gear should include a pair of binoculars, a notebook and pencil, and a birding guide. It’s a good idea to bring sunscreen, a hat, and water and snacks for yourself if you plan to be out for a while too.

woman in the shore

Check the weather report so you can prepare for rain or shine. If you’re exploring a wide and wild territory, you may want to bring a GPS device.

Take a page out of the professional bird watchers’ book and bring a camera. You don’t have to have the expensive ones with mile-long lenses either! A basic camera can take some great bird pictures that will help you save some birding memories and will give you a second chance to try and identify a sighting if you weren’t able to figure it out in the moment. Just make sure to turn off the flash to avoid stressing the birds out.

13. Use bird hides

Bird hides are man-made structures made specifically for bird watching activities. The external appearance is designed to blend in with the environment, while still providing an unimpeded view of the outside.

People who watch from here are hidden from the birds’ view, allowing them to observe the natural behavior of the birds without scaring them off with simple movements.

It’s also a good place to seek shelter if the sun or rain impedes your birding trip.

bird watching tower

Do a quick online search for bird hides near you. This is a chill way to observe birds–you can even bring a flask of hot cocoa or coffee to sip on as you appreciate the beauty of your local wildlife.

Since you are not seen or heard, you can consult your field guide to your heart’s content.

Be sure to respect other birders who happen to be in the hide with you. Make sure to clean up after yourself and keep the noise to a minimum.

14. Visit birding hotspots

If you’re a beginner planning to go on a birding trip, make sure you know the birding hotspots in the area you’re visiting.

These are sites that avian species have been known to frequent, which greatly increases your chances of spotting them.

Hotspots are typically areas that provide water, food, or shelter to one or several species. Forest edges, bushy areas, lakes, ponds, estuaries and other wetlands are often popular hotspots for birds of all sorts.

birds in nature

Familiarize yourself with native fruit- or berry-bearing plants so you can easily spot them in a forest. American elderberry, maple, cherry, oak, and wild blackberries are some bird-attracting plants that you might want to take note of.

But the easiest way to find birding hotspots is by visiting Make use of the data gathered by thousands of bird enthusiasts and researchers to find the absolute best bird hotspots.

It also lists the species most commonly spotted in that area, so you can familiarize yourself with them for easy recognition during your visit.

15. Follow the crowd

A helpful birding 101 tip: The saying “birds of a feather flock together” definitely rings true. Birds that have the same feeding habits or type of shelter will usually congregate where the resources they need are abundant.

That’s why one of the best and simplest birding tips is to follow the crowd.

During the winter, songbirds join flocks of other avian species to minimize threat of predation and to find food more easily. There is safety in numbers, after all.

birds in nature

Following the call of a single songbird may lead you to an area rife with birds. For example, heeding the call of a chickadee may lead to a flock full of titmice, woodpeckers, kinglets, and nuthatches.

Final Thoughts

I know that was a lot of information, but I hope it wasn’t too overwhelming. The most important thing to remember is that, as long as you follow the basic code of birdwatching ethics and keep yourself and the birds safe, there’s no right or wrong way to birdwatch. Sitting in your window watching sparrows visit your feeder is a legitimate way of joining the hobby.

I hope my tips will help you find exactly what you’re looking for. Happy birding!

2 thoughts on “15 Practical Bird Watching Tips for 2024”

  1. Avatar

    Brenda Starr. You just increased my bird watching from casual to purposeful. I will soon begin noting in an acquired log. In initially thought just go sit in a chair and watch. Now I am thinking build a bird blind! Thank you very much. BTW as I am dyslexic I first read your name as Earth Cliford. Earth. So if you ever want to switch…

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